Magical Cube – XBLIG Review

A WDesm review for XBoxHornet

“An Impossible Edition of Colour-Matching Puzzle Games”

Colour-matching puzzle games have come a long way from Columns – whether you look at the refined ultra-casual Bejeweled or the RPG-Lite of Puzzle Quest, the series has extreme appeal for gamers of any walk of life. FixedStarWorks has tried to tap into that huge market with Magical Cube, a gem-matching game with some lite RPG elements, and while the gameplay is solid and enjoyable, the difficulty level invites only the hardcore to stick around.

The storyline has you playing as a young magical witch, ready to prove.  My apologies for that, let me try again: The storyline is completely unimportant in a puzzle-game, and is completely forgettable.  As there is even less overarching interaction than, say, Puzzle Quest, the storyline might as well not exist.  That shouldn’t be taken as a slight against Magical Cube, however – there are tons of games where the storyline is unnecessary, and certainly, puzzle games (rivaled only perhaps by card games) would be those top genres.  So then, onto gameplay:

Gameplay is slightly different than other colour-matchers: Instead of flipping the location of two pieces, you instead shift an entire row (or column) left or right (or up/down), with edge pieces moving around to the other side of the board.  It’s a simple enough mechanic, and you’ll certainly get the hang of it quickly.  The trick arises in actual gameplay, when a myriad of abilities can nearly instantly spawn, and unless you’re ready for them, destroy you.

The game isn’t technically turn-based or timed – you could, hypothetically, play at whatever speed you wish.  The caveat, however, is that an enemy on the other side of the field is trying to kill you as fast as they can, and this demands that you work at breakneck speed.  While you are matching pieces, your overexcited schoolgirl will launch spells at the enemy, and the more chains you create, the more damage you do.  Power-ups can increase the amount of damage you do, which appear randomly and temporarily on the board, while other icons signify other dangers: Health Boosts are fantastic for you, but should you fail to collect one, the enemy gets the health instead; Locked Squares restrict motion on either the horizontal or vertical axis, demanding you really rethink your plan; Monsters appear on the map randomly – failure to get rid of the squares that the monsters reside upon gives your enemy power to use his spells on you.

I’d be lying if I said that the game was easy.  On top of this frantic pace, each monster has a special ability.  More than likely, the first ability that will drive you insane is from the third stage, where the icy terrain shifts the pieces one more space than you wanted, ruining any and all combos.  It isn’t impossible, but it certainly demands more lateral thinking than some of the other gem-matchers I’ve played.

Magical Cube certainly isn’t for everyone – it has a near vertical difficulty that will only appeal to the hardcore puzzle gamers, and the demo certainly isn’t indicative of the extreme difficulty the game can provide.  For those that appreciate a fair, if brutally unforgiving, puzzle game, you’ll have a blast testing your mettle, while unlocking various equippables for your character (each with small beneficial boosts like bonus HP), and mastering all the challenges that the game throws at you.   There’s no leaderboard function though, so your bragging rights will be all your own.

Game Score 8.5/10

Download a demo of the game here.

Watch the trailer here.

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Colony Defense – XBLIG review

A Dominic Tarason review for XBoxHornet

“Colony Defense has some interesting ideas and gimmicks that set it apart from the most super-generic titles, but doesn’t really capitalize on any of them.”

I’ve played this game before. That statement works on multiple levels, too.

First of all, this is Tower Defense, pure and simple. Most of you know the drill already, from a thousand flash games and a hundred indie titles already. Nasty aliens are coming to wreck your stuff, and follow pre-defined paths across the level, hopefully getting cut down by your stationary defense turrets before they reach your base and eat/blow up/steal your stuff.

More recently, this game has a lot in common with the iPhone/iPod Touch game Star Defense, which takes the fundaments of TD gameplay and applies it to a spherical map. While it looks pretty, it actually only serves to hinder the players efficiency, forcing you to spin the little planetoid around to keep track of where enemies/bases are and zoom in/out to get a coherent view of the action – problems that Colony Defense adopts as well, sadly.

What sets Colony Defense apart from Star Defense is size and scale, primarily. The planetoids you’re trying to scrub clean of alien invaders are pretty huge, and often have complex networks of branching roads which means that enemies move in unpredictable directions sometimes. This means that the player has to focus their defenses around common roads or crossroads where multiple entry-points meet, rather than being free to pick and choose where objects go.

There’s a couple of additional interesting elements, including an orbital cannon that the player can fire at a small cost every few seconds, ideal for picking off a lucky enemy that dodged too much fire, and an experience system of sorts, letting you buy small, persistent perks (up to 5% off tower prices, up to 5% extra firepower on anti-ground turrets, etc) inbetween missions.

You get a lot of game for your buck here. The campaign mode is enormous, spanning over 30 levels, constantly increasing in complexity. You’re given more turret types every few missions, and new enemies are steadily introduced into the mix, each having their own particular strengths and weaknesses. Overall, it feels like this game is balanced for experienced TD players, though, as it’s very easy to misspend early on in a stage, and find your defenses woefully inadequate just a few minutes later down the road.

It feels like there’s largely one ideal ‘solution’ to each level, rather than giving each player leeway to pick and choose their own approach, like the best games in the genre. A more lenient difficulty curve, and a more flexible scoring system would have encouraged replays through seeking a higher score, rather than forcing it through failure.

All in all, this isn’t a bad game, but it’s also not a particularly good one either. Colony Defense has some interesting ideas and gimmicks that set it apart from the most super-generic titles, but doesn’t really capitalize on any of them.

It’s decent if you’re a particular fan of the genre, and you want something challenging, but it’s probably not worth it otherwise. You can get much better for less on XBL Indie Games (Nextwar is a particularly good TD title), or even for free on one of the countless flash game portals on the web.

Game Score 6/10

Download a demo here.

Watch a trailer here.

Zombie Armageddon – XBLIG review

A WDesm review for XBoxHornet

“Lock and Load, soldier!  This Tower Defense needs your gun (and better production values)!”

Zombie Armageddon has joined the ranks as an XBLIG Tower Defense game, and, following in the steps of the amazing Soulcaster, it certainly has its work cut out for it.  How well does it line up?  Well, I won’t say its ground-breaking, but it does have some charm.  Read more to find out.

The game follows a small bunch of armymen traveling from fortified HQ to fortified HQ, aiming to escape a city overrun with zombies.  Each stage is a single screen, where zombies start from a discernible spawn spot, and travel the path towards your base.  Your survival depends on fortifying the path to your base, and a Humvee acts as your ‘Hand of God’ on the battlefield, rolling out from the HQ to deploy troops, rescue civilians, upgrade existing troop ‘towers’, or alter the very battlefield with more advanced features.  Your offense in the game comes from your deployed troops, who can fire from the safety of the rooftops onto the passing zombies.  Taller buildings have the advantage of offering troops a longer range, so ‘tower’ placement becomes tricky, as not only do you need to decide on the location of the troops, but also choose the appropriate rooftop, and your Humvee needs to be able to travel from the HQ to the location safely, without itself being overrun with zombies.

While there are many features available to you, there are explained in a clear-and-concise tutorial, so you aren’t overwhelmed when first left to your own self-defense devices, but like most tower defenses, it does promote the rather binary “there is a right deployment design and a wrong deployment design” logic that often crops up in Tower Defense games.  Thankfully, there is a demolition option available, so that you can create new paths or set up new killzones for your troops, but I found that the game didn’t offer enough money in each stage for me to use this feature – I often spent almost all of my money on defensive encampments and troop upgrades, and didn’t have the opportunity to really play around with level manipulation, which is a real shame.  The requirement that the Humvee be able to travel to any position you want to interact with is a sufficient penalty enough that money-generating could probably be marginally increased without drastically affecting game difficulty (or, alternatively, simply decrease the cost of demolitions).

The storyline is tied together with MSPaint-quality still images overlaid with mediocre voice-acting.  To be honest, I’m impressed at the high quality of the images achieved through such a simple medium, but the end result is still below the expectation for a ‘cutscene’ in a finished game, and while low-quality graphics work acceptably in the thick of the action-centric stages, it doesn’t cut it for commanding your attention.  The audio isn’t so unprofessional to have static or breathing sounds, but it still should have been done ‘correctly’, with quality equipment and well-rehearsed voices, or not at all.  The pain is compounded because new enemy types are introduced through these cutscenes, leaving you the unpleasant choice of auditory and visual violation versus entering the next stage unawares.  Honestly?  After stage 2, I chose ‘unawares.’

Ultimately, Zombie Armageddon is definitely a ‘try before you buy’ game.  The Tower Defense mechanic has a few unique additions to it, namely in how you have to choose where your troops are placed for optimal firing range, and how you have to deploy them via the Humvee, but the limited resources doesn’t truly enable you to play around with them enough.  The included Onslaught mode does allow you to have a more enduring effect on the battlefield, and does offer substantial replayability if the game is your cup of tea….just watch out for those deadly cutscenes.

Grab a gun and try this one out, if Tower Defenses are your forté!

Game Score 6.5/10

Download a demo here.

Watch a trailer here.

Fight Monkey of Magic – XBLIG Review

A Dominic Tarason review for XBoxHornet

“There’s a lot worse out there, but this is still far from good.”

The sprite-art and backgrounds are better than a lot of XBL Indie games.

And so my attempt at being positive about this game begins and ends. Fight Monkey of Magic is a 1-4 player isometric-view fighting game. You pick one of seven characters (only three available initially, the other four unlocked through slogging through the ‘story’ mode), ranging from a post-apocalyptic cyborg warrior, to a magic monkey and a busty elf-girl, and fight to the falling-over in seven effectively identical arenas.

You whizz around the arena like you’re ice-skating, minus the inertia, and your primary goal is to obnoxiously stunlock your opponent by repeating the same attack (no fancy special moves here – just an attack bound to almost every button on the pad!) infinitely until their health bar runs out. This will take some time, as you’ll inevitably drain your all-purpose attack energy bar in the process, forcing you to run around the arena like an idiot until you’re ready to renew your assault. Unfortunately, the game never tells you that your movement is limited to just the inner 60% of the screen, and attempting to run too far from your opponent will cause your character to begin jerking around until both the enemy and far-too-slow-panning camera catch up.

A lot of the combat is ranged, but it’s particularly unenjoyable as your characters can only face 8 set directions. If your target has the nerve to stand anywhere but in those 8 points, your attack (unless it’s homing, which a fair few are) will be rendered completely useless.

Now, I did say ‘infinite’ stunlocking, but that was a bit of an exaggeration. You can opt to spend part of your attack bar on blocking, which causes you to be invincible for a few seconds, but unable to do anything else. Some characters can’t even move while blocking, effectively just prolonging their lockdown. In short: Tedious and repetitive, and the game has the nerve of making you play a best-of-three match at least. You can increase that number up to best-of-21, but I don’t think anyone could actually survive that experience.

The sound and music are equally poor, too. Most arenas seem to have a 15-20 second loop of generic electro beats, and every character has a single ‘ARGH’ voice clip that plays every single time they’re hit. There are a few bloops and warbles for attacks, but they’re neither interesting nor memorable either.

There’s almost a saving grace in here. Slash Mode – a survival shooter playmode – but even that is sunk by the design flaws of the main game. You literally fight hundreds of identical miniature clones of a story mode opponent who do nothing but walk into you and (very slowly) drain your health.

Avoid this one.

Game Score 3/10

Download the demo here.

Ava the Firefly – XBLIG Review

A WDesm review for XBoxHornet

“Fly around as a butterfly and collect the colourful-yet-lost-fireflies.  Enchanting and enjoyable!”

Dreamwagon Games has exploded onto the XBLIG scene in 2010 with two XBLIG offerings, and the first one that we’re lucky enough to review is Ava The Firefly, a casual game about rescuing confused fireflies, and guiding them towards the light.  With no offense power or abilities to speak of, it’s a very different beast from the usual action games we see.

Ava, your butterfly/firefly (you can choose which creature you are on the options menu, although the choice is entirely aesthetic), is tasked with collecting lost fireflies, and bringing them back to the safe and inviting glow of the streetlamp (or the …moon?) .  Bats fly around, and while they merely scare off the fireflies, they can injure you, and a limited amount of ‘vita’ (life) is all you have to go on; If you run out of life, it’s game over.  Fortunately, you have a few tricks up your sleeve to help you out – a simple dash function allows you to quickly move in bursts for a short duration, a ‘rally’ function bundles all of your currently-following fireflies close together to keep tabs on them, and a ‘glow’ function, the closest thing you have to an offensive ability, that temporarily scares bats away.  Points are gained by safely escorting fireflies back to the lamp, and after a set number of points, you clear the ‘stage’ – your three bars (vita, glow, dash) are recharged, more fireflies and bats spawn, and the cycle begins anew.

Ava the Firefly isn’t an in-depth game, and you’ll quickly master the basics of gameplay – the emphasis here is on a quick ‘pick-up-and-play’ just for fun.  Ava the Firefly is a casual game – no flashing time bars scream at you, the music is serene and casual, and the fireflies you collect are all soft pastel colours.  Points are tabulated, based on a table (shown above in the screen) of how many fireflies you have in tow, and at the end of a game, there is both a local and online leaderboard for you to showcase your bragging rights.  I’m really happy to see the leaderboard – even in ‘casual’ games like this, if you get in a little bit of a comfy trance and zone out playing for a few hours, then you should be able to hold bragging rights over the rest of the digital community (as of writing this, my score is ~24,000 – try to beat me!)

Ava the Firefly probably isn’t going to win any awards for ingenuity, and could benefit from small boons like merits/badges (I’ll admit that I tried to collect single-coloured fireflies just to see if the game would reward me), more backdrops, or even a ‘no-die’ mode for the extremely casual, but at the cheapest pricepoint available, you have a colourful and relaxing game with the chance to brag on online leaderboards.  That’s something I can appreciate.

Game Score 7/10

Download the demo here.

Watch a gameplay vid here.

Mega Monster Mania – XBLIG Review

A WDesm review for XBoxHornet

“The addictive randomness of Diablo meets the mechanics of a twin stick shooter, and it ROCKS!”

If you’re like me, a claim of Diablo and twin-stick shooter should make you antsy, given how saturated those genres have become in recent years. And on paper, perhaps Mega Monster Mania seems like it should be rehashed garbage; take two over-mimicked genres, mix, and you always end up with a mess, right?  Well, evidentally not: Mega Monster Mania seems to hit the sweet spot between being instantly comprehensible and not so banal as to offend.  As for me, I’m just glad that Stegersaurus opted to make the deal even sweeter with a two-player mode, because nothing makes a great game greater than playing with your friends.

The game starts you off by choosing a few small options – humourously, you run around the start menu with the same mechanics as you play the game, allowing you to get a handle on gameplay quickly.  Auto-attack seems to be a no-brainer, since there’s no penalty for low accuracy, but you can also choose your starting dungeon level (up to the max that you’ve encountered) and your character image.  After a few seconds, you can throw yourself into the action, swinging swords and quaffing potions.

Like any twin stick shooter, the left stick is movement, and the right stick is attack direction.  Since you primarily use melee weapons, the risk is a lot higher in this game than in other twin stick shooters, so thankfully, you can collect potions rather frequently to improve your odds, be their health potions, damage resistance potions, bombs, or ‘knockback’ crowdclearers, they will make your life easier.  That’s not the only loot you collect, however – monsters and chests randomly drop weapons and armor of all shapes, sizes, and properties, and just like any other Diablo/loothunter game, you’ll be addicted to always getting the better gear and better enchantments.  The controls aren’t perfect, and to be honest, I found movement to be a little ‘floaty’ – it’s a shame that there wasn’t some form of targeting assistance, as it would be nice to be able to lock your aim onto specific high-priority enemies. If that sounds a little contradictory to the usual twin stick shooter mentality, I understand, but the controls just didn’t win me over, and aiming your slow-firing bow at distant targets was not a rewarding experience.

Sadly, the multiplayer is 2-player local only; it would be amazing to have 4-player rumbles ala Castle Crashers, and I can only imagine how deep in the dungeon you could survive with such firepower.  Even as it stands, though, this is one game I strongly encourage you to try.  You may just get hooked on loot collecting and dungeon spelunking, and if you find another pal on the couch to play with, all the better.

Game Score 8.5/10

Download a demo here.

Hypno Volume 1 – XBLIG Review

A WDesm review for XBoxHornet

“A Brand New Direction for XBLIG, and the result isn’t for kids”

Hypno is the first part in a series of darker games by Andrew Gaubatz (in fact, the full game title is ‘Hypno Volume 1’). The premise of the game is that you play a psychopathic & blind hypnotist who, after breaking out of an asylum for the criminally insane, begins to use the local town as her playpen of murder, torture, and manipulation. The themes are a marked departure from the usual games released on XBLIG, and, in the words of the developer, this is both an “Experimental title and [an] Artistic expression.” I’m not bold enough to speak for the masses, but love it or hate it, it certainly gave me some food for thought, and it’s a rare thing indeed when you leave a game thinking more and thinking more critically than when you started.

The game starts with a montage detailing the main character and how she has ended up in her predicament. The demo does not include this opening cinematic, not for exclusivity or elitism, but simply because its inclusion would significantly take away from the eight minute demo timer. The cinematic is instead hosted online for you to view, and is an excellent measure of the game’s themes and storyline – be warned though, Hypno is a dark game, and certainly not recommended for children.

I was fortunate enough to steal a small discussion with Andrew Gaubatz, and it sheds some light on the purpose of having such an intensely dark game;

“Hypno started not so much with [aspirations of experimentalism and artistic expression], just as “wouldn’t it be cool to make a game about hypnotists”, but as I started fleshing things out I realized that it would be a great opportunity to experiment. Specifically with something I’m really interested in, that being games where you’re not playing as the hero. I wanted to see if you could create something different and more powerful by putting the player in the shoes of someone who is ultimately the villain. So that’s definitely the core experiment here.
The artistic side of things didn’t really emerge until I had the game engine up and running and could watch a few people play around with it. And that’s where I started to develop the core theme of the game, which to me is dehumanization. Every element in the game, the visuals, the way people are represented as dots, the structure of the missions, is designed to show the player how anyone, even they, can do some really awful things and enjoy it if they are distanced enough from the humanity of the people involved. So ultimately the whole game, and more literally the main character’s blindness, are there to represent the way we blind ourselves to what’s really going on in order to do some of the things we do, whether justified or not.
Now that said, it is also just a game and I have no problem with people who want to take the game and play it just on face value. And I also (obviously) have no problem with violent games, I just think such games give us an interesting window to look at where we might be falling into the same (though of course less extreme) paradigms in real life, where they would obviously be less appropriate.”

For an Indie game release, Andrew certainly has set his personal bar high. Most likely, the demo will be primarily judged on its gameplay rather than its themes, and with the opening cinematic and storyline being cut from the demo, gamers will have to manually hunt down the story to the game if they are that interested. Fortunately, I was able to experience the game in its full form, and the story was full enough to hold my interest long into the later missions.

The game plays out from an overhead view of a small town. People are represented by small black dots, and their colour changes as their priority changes (targets are red or orange, while hypnotized minions are green). By expanding your hypnotizing circle around you, you are able to either “Rip” the thoughts from passerbys, learning new data and locations, or Implant them with instructions (mostly revolving around going somewhere, getting something, and killing someone / themselves with a tool that they have or have collected, or a combination of the above. Small twists, such as being able to contact hypnotized minions via cellphones to set off chain reactions, compound these options). There are seventeen such missions in total, plus a sandbox-style feature between missions for you to experiment on your own in the city.

As an artistic/experimental game, Hypno has merit: Not at all art, or video games, can be rainbow gems and self-venerating ultraheroes. However, an obtuse game from an unknown company has more fundamental hurdles, such as market penetration and name recognition. The gameplay is relatively shallow to other XBLIG offerings, and at Microsoft’s highest Indie pricing point, it becomes difficult to see gamers staying around long enough to distinguish the dehumanizing themes from a perceivably ‘simple’ psychopath simulator. Without the opening story trying to hook the reader, the gameplay can be understood and mastered well in the demo timeframe, and unfortunately, while Hypno might have a great deal of artistic depth, I don’t think it has done a good enough job of tantalizing gamers with its gameplay to leave them thinking about deeper self-reflection.

If, however, after reading this, you can’t help but wonder what such a simulator and such an experiment would look like, I cannot encourage you more to download the demo below. After all, the value behind each piece of artwork is to assess it for yourself – good art is supposed to leave one thinking, no?

Game Score 5.5/10

Download a demo here.